Read My Amazon WriteOn Featured Novel “Cadet’ Free!

Cadet-4

Rae Mallory is a talented young dancer, her room cluttered with trophies. She never dreamed that could get her drafted.

Only dancers can stop the alien funnel clouds hitting Earth. Led by the inhumanly gorgeous Lieutenant V., the ‘two-step’ cadets are Earth’s dance-fighting heroes.

Thanks to her ex-soldier Pop, the army has always been Rae’s worst nightmare, even before violent monsters were involved. She’s desperate to escape the draft, but Lieutenant V. won’t let her get away so easily.

 

Here’s chapter one of my work-in-progress, ‘Cadet’! If you like it, check out the rest on Amazon’s WriteOn website.

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When I was a kid, I wasn’t afraid of monsters, or the boogeyman, or even aliens, like now. It was Pop’s screaming—sudden, raw and terrified—that had me yanking the sheets up over my head at night. I learned right quick not to ask him about it in the morning.

Just then, I was more concerned about Ma’s worried hums, floating up the stairs and drowning out the newscaster. Dread stuck like dry crackers in my throat, and I couldn’t keep my hand from shaking while I ran a straightener through my blow-dried frizz. I could only guess what new disaster had taken over the media. Could be another group suicide. Or more riots and looting in India. But deep down I knew, though I didn’t want to admit it, that it was another attack.

I didn’t want to think about it. If there really had been another attack, that meant they were increasing, so once I was ready I tried to sneak past Ma to get outside, but the kitchen was right off the front door. All she had to do was glance up from the TV to see me.

“Rae, where are you going all dressed up with your hair done?”

“School,” I said and reached for the doorknob.

“Baby, it’s Saturday.”

I stopped, my hand in the air. The campus wasn’t open on Saturday anymore. Attendance had gotten so low it wasn’t cost effective.

“Come in here,” she said. I winced, but let my bag fall to the floor and shuffled into the kitchen. I knew what was coming.

She reached for me from her seat by the table and pulled me close, stroking my hair. “Another funnel cloud appeared last night, in China,” she said, her dark eyes full of worry.

I bit my lip so hard it hurt, first scared, then relieved, then guilty. China was all the way on the other side of the world. There still hadn’t been any attacks in the West…yet, but thousands of people must have died, and that was nothing to be happy about. I knew what I’d see on the TV screen: a purple funnel cloud, wide at the bottom and skinny at the top, hanging there swirling lazily. Around that, a big circle of nothing, just bare land where the cloud had sucked everything up. Outside of that, broken houses. Overturned cars. Debris.

Bodies.

But the worst were the monsters. The aerial views were too far to get a good look, but from what I saw they were tall, bone white and walked on two legs. They guarded the funnels, attacking anyone and anything that got too close, but that seemed to be their only goal. They never left the area around each cloud.

I reminded myself of that every night when I went to bed.

“You should give your daddy a call,” Ma said.

“Yeah,” I said. I should, but I wouldn’t. She told me to call him every time there was an attack, and yeah, I got why, but there was a reason they were divorced. He wasn’t a nice person at the best of times and when he drank, which was a lot these days, he got real mean. And I knew I should be a better, more understanding daughter. I knew all too well what set him off in the night. But he didn’t make it easy.

I took a deep breath, trying to push down the fear and get up the courage to look at the TV. I got a good whiff of Ma’s coffee instead, and I felt a bit better. The smell was so normal, so her. Apocalypse or not, Ma would be sitting in the kitchen every morning with her big white mug.

She turned back to the screen. “Lord help us. Even seeing it I still don’t believe it. What do they want?

No one knew. We’d never been able to communicate with them, and the attacks seemed completely random, coming months apart.

I swallowed again and forced myself to look, but they weren’t showing the cloud. A white flag with three wavy red lines in the middle hung behind a podium. That flag was so familiar now. It was the symbol of the Nuncene.

Journalists waited for someone to arrive. It didn’t take long for her to drift onstage, and she set off a bunch of flashing and clicking from the cameras. My breath always caught a little at the sight of Nhet-Nhet and now was no different.

How could someone be that beautiful? She wasn’t human, but still. Nhet-Nhet was the unofficial Nuncene ambassador to Earth, and they chose the perfect person for the job. She was lovely and flowy and…light. Like, everything about her was airy and pale, like a snow queen. She was an alien too, but nothing like the creatures sending the clouds. The Nuncene were here to help us, at least that’s what they said.

Nhet-Nhet wore a long, ivory, military style coat, tall white boots, and she had those strange light eyebrows natural blonds have, but somehow on her they worked. She walked like at any second she would float off the ground. She probably could for all I knew.

She spoke, but not in English or any other language on God’s green Earth. She was being translated by voice-over, but I wished they would use subtitles because I liked her voice. You’d think she would sound like she looked: light and breathy, but her voice was deep, husky. The kind of voice that forced you to lean in closer. She wasn’t saying much that we didn’t already know, mostly that she hoped to see many dancers come out for the next recruitment session in Manhattan. If anyone could rally the troops it was Nhet-Nhet. She wouldn’t get me though.

“I mean it about your daddy,” Ma said. “You need to keep in touch, just in case…”

“In case what, Ma?” I snapped. “A funnel cloud sucks us up? Or in case I get drafted?”

She stiffened and turned away, and something about the way one black curl escaped her hair wrap and rested against the dark, flawless skin of her cheek made her look so vulnerable.  I regretted yelling at her. None of this was her fault.

“Sorry,” I mumbled.

She sighed, but wouldn’t look at me. “Your father loves you, Rae. He just…” She shook her head. “Go on upstairs.”

I did, guilt and frustration bouncing in my throat as I thumped up each step. She wouldn’t know. Pop didn’t really get going until she wasn’t around, otherwise they got into huge, screaming fights.

This was exactly why I’d wanted to hit up the studio and lose myself in dance for a few hours, which was ironic.  I used dance to escape, but it was also the cause of my biggest problem.

The army needed dancers. Only dancers, with the help of the Nuncene, could destroy the clouds and stop them from spewing toxins into the atmosphere, but I didn’t know the specifics. I didn’t want to know the specifics. If this truly was the end of days, I wanted to spend them with Ma and my friends, not playing superhero. The army was right above Siberia on the list of places I ever wanted or expected to end up. It was a waking nightmare that dance, which I loved more than almost anything, made me the perfect candidate for the draft. And if I got drafted, I’d end up just like Pop.

My heartbeat sped up and my head hurt. I needed a distraction. I sunk into my desk chair and booted up my laptop, then brought up my document with all my theories and leads. If I couldn’t dance, I’d work on finding Phil.

He’d been missing for over a year. At times it seemed like I was the only one who cared. The police were no help—said he’d probably just run away, since some of his clothes were missing. And Phil’s Ma could barely tear herself away from the crack pipe long enough to notice he was gone.

But me and Phil were tight, like white on rice. He wouldn’t just leave without saying anything. No, he was out there, and he needed me. Just one more reason I couldn’t go to war.

I promised myself I would never, ever date a guy like Pop, and Phil was the opposite. He was a hip-hop dancer, and though he didn’t go to a “bougie” dance school like me, he taught me everything I knew about how to pop, lock and animate. He used to put up videos on-line, and I wanted to examine his last one…again.

However, checking the site brought me face to face with what I was trying to avoid. The main page showed a list of videos titled, “Pick me, Lieutenant V.!”, with preview stills of people smiling desperately into the camera. Idiots. Lieutenant V. ran the ‘two-step cadets’, as the media called them. He chose then trained dancers from Earth to fight the funnel clouds. Like Nhet-Nhet, he was Nuncene, and like Nhet-Nhet, he was stunning.

Seriously stunning. The latest recruitment session had taken place last week at my school, Branson. I tried to avoid going when I knew they were scouting, but the sessions were increasing, and I missed the memo. That day, as I arrived Lieutenant V. came out of the main doors to Adams School of Dance, the center of a storm of photographers and groupies shouting his name. We even made eye contact, and that’s what got me. His eyes were pale green and flashed like gemstones, the color overlapping the whites just a bit too much to look normal. I froze, both horrified and fascinated. I know what people mean now when they say time stopped. For the longest half-second of my life I stood there, open and helpless.

Once I got control of my brain I ran, hiding in the student center until I thought it was safe to enter Adams.

Yeah, he was gorgeous. That was probably why thousands were uploading videos like they were auditioning for reality TV. Whatever, the more people throwing themselves at Lieutenant V., the less chance he’d want me.

I sighed and glanced around my room at all my dance plaques and trophies. Honestly, I was more than a little worried. Maybe I should just quit school and lay low…

Oh, who was I kidding. There was no ‘laying low’. The U.S. government had info on anyone who attended or had ever attended a performing arts school. If they wanted you they drafted you, period. If you tried to run, rumor was Lieutenant V. would personally hunt you down, using whatever alien technology they used to destroy the clouds, and when he found you, he’d be pissed.

Goosebumps prickled all over my arms and I shivered. Enough about stupid Lieutenant V. I clicked over to Phil’s video, jabbing the mouse a bit harder than I needed to. My head resting in my palm, I tried to concentrate on the background in Phil’s video, looking for anything suspicious, but I kept focusing on how his ears stuck out a bit too much, but he was cute anyway. Or how I used to like playing with his hair—a bunch of soft curls he always wore pulled back. His laughing brown eyes. That wide smile when the crowd went crazy. Like me, he fed off their energy. A live group made it feel like the air was buzzing, and together Phil and I knew how to hype up a crowd.

Soon, I was sniffling. This was just as bad as worrying about the war. I shut my laptop. Drummed my fingers on my desk. I needed to get rid of my nervous energy. Maybe a run around the block would do it.

When I got downstairs Ma was on the phone. “I’m going for a run,” I called as I quick-walked past the kitchen, still ashamed of my outburst.

“You got your cell?” She called back.

“Yeah.” I patted the pocket in my hoodie, feeling the square bulk of my smart phone. I slipped on my favorite black high tops and headed outside. It was a bright summer day, the air humid. My suburb looked the same as always, rows of pastel houses along faded asphalt. Birds still tweeted as if this wasn’t Armageddon, but my cute neighbors with the pigtails didn’t play jump rope and hopscotch in the street anymore.

Standing on the concrete of my front porch, I did some toe touches, and as I stretched I saw something out of the corner of my eye. A bunch of colorful flyers hung out of our overstuffed mailbox. Junk mail was just a fact of life I guess, right to the bitter end. My heart rate was up, and I knew it wasn’t just from stretching. My palms always got a little clammy just looking at the mailbox. I was starting to hate it.

Every day I told myself I had to check the mail, but neither of us had collected it in close to two weeks. It was time to stop letting this little metal box terrorize me. I yanked the lid up, making it squeak on its hinges, and grabbed handfuls of paper, ignoring the memory of Lieutenant V.’s green eyes. There were still bills to pay, whether we had the money or not.

There was so much mail it slipped out of my hands, scattering on the gray concrete. I bent to pick it all up, trying to keep my fingers from shaking, and noticed a plain brown envelope.

Of course, it was stamped U.S. Army postal services.

Read the rest on WriteOn

Face up to Blackface in Japan

Time to get a bit heavy for a minute.

Japan, there are so many things I love about you, like Taiko and Katsu Curry. But we need to have a little sit down about this one right here.

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This is in response to an upcoming performance on national television by the J-pop groups Momoiro Clover Z, and Rats and Star and who are notorious for performing in blackface.

For the people who understand, especially the thoughtful, conscientious Japanese like my many friends, thank you for your spirit of open-mindedness and cooperation.

For the others…

Please just don’t.

I get that you like cosplay, but I gotta tell ya, I’m really not that interested in your impression of me, because honestly it’s kinda messed up.

Going through the comments on the net I have, to my bafflement, seen many arguments in defense, dare I say in support of Japanese Blackface.  Let me break down what’s problematic about them.

  •  Japanese don’t have the same history, they don’t know any better. 

Bzzt. Not buying it. There is this skill we humans use when we haven’t had an experience, but want to try to understand what it must have been like for someone else.

It’s called empathy.

So this defense is really not a defense at all, because all you’re saying is that the Japanese are so lacking in empathy they can’t tell when they’re doing something incredibly offensive.

Which, incidentally couldn’t be further from the truth. In my years of experience here, it’s become clear to me the Japanese pride themselves on being able to practically mind-read. They’re very good at picking up social cues. There’s even a buzzword for those who can’t: KY, or Kuuki Yomenai. It means someone “can’t read the atmosphere”.

But if the Japanese needed some help walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, they could always think back to how it felt when Chinese actresses played the lead roles in Memoirs of a Geisha, or what if felt like to watch Katy Perry prance around in a half Chinese-half Japanese “kimono” at the AMAs.

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I refuse to believe that, in 2015, all of Japan is so “KY” about blackface,

  • It’s not racist, it’s just offensive. 

Oh, well that’s alright then.

….What?!

  • It’s an homage. They like black people. 

From Merriam-Webster online:

Homage (Noun). “Something that shows respect or attests to the worth or influence of another.”

Some homage.

Maybe, just maybe, if the very artists you are homage-ing would be horrified by what you’re doing, it’s not an homage!

What the hell? You don’t get to tell people “this is our homage to you and by God you’re gonna like it.” That’s not how to homage peeps.

Mockery (Noun) “An insincere, contemptible, or impertinent imitation”

That sounds like a much more fitting definition for Japanese blackface. Paying homage to musicians or a people you claim to like, without bothering to acknowledge the dark history of what you’re doing, sounds pretty insincere to me.

  • But you’re wearing a yukata in your profile picture you big old hypocrite.

I am, and I look pretty cute if I do say so myself.  What I didn’t do is my parody of what I think Japanese people are while I was wearing it. By that logic Japanese shouldn’t be wearing t-shirts and jeans.

  • This is Japan. They can do whatever they want.

Oh, absolutely. There’ll just be consequences that’s all. This stubborn mentality is what’s holding Japan back as a world power, in my opinion. This is the same mentality prevalent in the archaic business practices, in the three hour meetings that eat up time and resources, in forcing subordinates to stay at work until their bosses leave, even if that’s not until ten to midnight.  What people don’t realize is that there’s so much more at stake here than just “making the blacks happy.”

If Japan wants to be taken seriously as a world power, hosting the Olympics etc., they need to respect other cultures. If they don’t, the international media will rake them over the coals, just like they did Russia over their treatment of gays. Not necessarily because black lives matter (which they do), but in making Japan look bad, they get to make themselves look good.

Again, I will say there is much to love about Japan. I don’t think all Japanese people are horrible, ignorant dinosaurs. I have a lot of wonderful friends and students who make a great effort to understand me, and give me lots of hope and love for this country. But like in every other country, there are some unscrupulous people who just want to make a buck, regardless of their disrespectful actions, and the damage they’re doing to their country’s reputation.

Foreigners living in Japan shouldn’t be enabling.  Like staging in intervention for an alcoholic friend, if we really have love for this country, we have a responsibility to speak out about things like Japanese blackface.

 

Wishtester Wins a Watty!

Wishtester Wattys Winner

Wishtesters are the lowest of the low, the most pitiful beggars and crooks living on the fringes of society, and Faruq is itching to become one.

Asking a wish of the Djinn, powerful beings who can grant almost anything the heart desires, is a privilege normally reserved for the exceedingly wealthy. But wishtesters may petition the Djinn without spending a single coin.

The price for wishtesters is far greater than simple gold.

 

Say what? My novella Wishtester won an ‘undiscovered gem’ award on Wattpad! If you haven’t yet, go read it and find out why.

Please?

Why nooooot? It’s free!

You can read Wishtester on Wattpad, or right here on my blog.

**Happy Dance**

 

 

I’m in Love with Taiko

** This is a re-post from my old blog. **

Taiko

No, Taiko is unfortunately not the name of some cool and sexy Japanese guy. It’s beautiful, traditional Japanese drumming.

One of the things I really love and admire about Japan is the traditional music. There’s something about the sound of the shamisen, koto and yes the booming Taiko drum that just resonates with my soul. The pounding rhythm of the Taiko is aggressive, it’s commanding — it’ll crash your brain and force you to listen. And beating the drum requires not only strength, but style. A Taiko drummer also needs to be a dancer, and the perfect form of a Taiko master combines strength and grace, like a hunting crane. A Taiko performance is nothing short of art.

How did I get involved in Taiko? I saw the opportunity for a free Taiko lesson posted on TimeOut Tokyo, and I knew I had to try it. I had my misgivings: Will I be able to understand the instructor if the class is in Japanese? How much will it cost if I want to continue? Will I have to buy a big Taiko drum? But the music was calling, so I pushed all those worries aside and sent an email saying I wanted to try the free lesson. Some of my fears about language were eased when the reply had pretty accurate English grammar.

Now I’m hooked. I’ve been taking lessons for four months, and I’m in the middle of learning a routine for my first concert. There are days when I feel lazy and I don’t want to go to class, but I remember the rhythm, and I drag myself to the train station, and once I’m in class surrounded by the drumming, I’m always glad I went.

What’s a typical lesson like? Well, I get to the studio and give my usual chorus of konban wa (good evening) to everyone I see. If I’m early I help our sensei (teacher) and the other students with setting up the drums. We use three huge drums, and take turns practicing.

After the drums are set up I go get changed. Taiko is a workout, especially when we’re practicing the fast rhythms, so I need my workout gear. This is the time I usually practice my minuscule Japanese, by talking to the other students. And they also get to practice their English with me.

Then I tape up my hands with elastic bandages. If I don’t I get bruises and blisters on my hands from drumming so hard. Soon after that sensei will call out, “Hai! Hajimemasho! (Let’s Start)” Then we do some stretches, and then get into drumming practice. Though I can’t understand a lot of what’s being said, I can get it from context. But if I ask another student who speaks English they’re always willing to explain. At some point we get some one on one time with the sensei, and though he doesn’t speak English he shows me what I’m doing wrong by doing a hilarious caricature of me. Uh…point taken sensei.

These Taiko lessons have been a great way to challenge myself physically and mentally. The style of Taiko I do is Miyake Taiko, and I’m really, really trying to have passable drumming form before the concert. However, I am slightly worried about the “waiting pose” we have to make when it’s not our turn to drum. It’s a crouching sit that starts to hurt after about one minute and makes my legs fall asleep! The last thing I want is to get up to drum and fall flat on my face…

Still, I think I’ve stumbled onto something incredible here, and I’m already excited for the next lesson. They are two hours long but I don’t even feel it. Once the drum beat starts everything else fades away. There’s only a thunderous rhythm that vibrates first in the soles of my bare feet, then travels up my legs, up my spine and hijacks the beat of my heart. The nagging chatter of the everyday worries of life is no match for the powerful boom of the Taiko drum.

My Feature on InterNations

Internations

Check me out!

logo-old@2xHere’s an interview I did for InterNations, which is a great site that connects expats from around the world.

Here’s my interview, in which I talk about getting ready to move to Japan, my favorite blog post and one of the funniest things to happen to me out here.

Click here to read it!

 

The Beginning of the End: Tokyo T-minus Six Months

keep-calm-it-s-the-final-countdownあけましておめでとうございます!

Happy New Year!

2014 was a successful one for me: I made some big moves in my career, met more amazing people and improved my Japanese the most out of any year I’ve been here. 去年一所懸命歯働いたよ。(Last year I worked super hard!)

However, this year will be bitter sweet, as the countdown to lift off from Japan has been officially initiated.

It’s not because I hate it here. For the most part Tokyo has been good to me. There have been bumps along the way: random police checks, the occasional drunk asshole shouting “gaijin” at me, and hunting for an apartment in a discriminatory marketplace. But the good times far outweigh the bad. Tokyo is a vibrant, lively city that will always have a piece of my heart.

The reasons I’m leaving have more to do with life in general. As I approach my third decade on God’s favorite piece of space debris,  there’s a lot I want to accomplish both personally and professionally.  I don’t feel it will be easy to do those things in Japan.

That said, there’s a lot I need to accomplish in the half year I have left. From soaking up all the Japanese I can to saving money, this year’s gonna be full throttle.

Study-mangaThis year I’m taking on the dreaded kanji–Chinese characters used in the Japanese alphabet. At the absolute least 2000 are needed for literacy. I might be able to easily recognize 300. Still, I bought some manga from the second-hand bookstore down the street. I figure the pictures should help. They must be for kids or something because they have furigana (phonetic spellings) next to the kanji characters.

I’m also going to my first writer’s conference in New York this year. I’m planning to do a pitch session for my latest novel, which I’m currently getting critiqued. Honestly the chances of finding an agent at the con aren’t great, but I’m sure I’ll learn a lot.

So while this year will be the end of an era, it’s only so I can usher an new, brighter era full of more success, adventure and growth.

楽しみにする–I’m looking forward to it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wishtester Chapter 1: Shady Dealings in Shady Alleys

New-Wishtester-Cover-3

Wishtesters are the lowest of the low, the most pitiful beggars and crooks living on the fringes of society, and Faruq is itching to become one.

Asking a wish of the Djinn, powerful beings who can grant almost anything the heart desires, is a privilege normally reserved for the exceedingly wealthy. But wishtesters may petition the Djinn without spending a single coin.

The price for wishtesters is far greater than simple gold.

Click here to read the story on Wattpad too!

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Copyright 2014 All Rights Reserved

A long time ago, in a land lost to history…

Faruq crouched behind an urn almost as tall as he was, the light scent of oranges teasing his nose with every quick breath. He couldn’t let Thamina see him, or he was finished. What kind of luck was this, he thought, that his older sister would be shopping in this area of the market now of all times. She would definitely want to know why he was so far from home, and she would see through any excuse he could come up with.

Wedged between the urn and a table piled with colorful scarves, his face screwed up in discomfort, Faruq could see only dozens of sandaled feet traversing the main market road. When he dared to peek over the urn he had to squint against the midday sun, and the familiar sight of his sister’s pink headscarf was like a beacon. She was bent over examining some fruit. Ahura Mazdaa, he cursed, knowing he couldn’t stay there because even if he turned away, shrewd-eyed Thamina would spot him as she passed his hiding place, and then she would try to force him to go home, not that he would listen. He hated how his sister always bossed him around.

Just as he worked up the courage to dash into the crowd she looked up, as if she could sense his thoughts. Faruq ducked back down. He took a few calming breaths, once more inhaling the fresh orange scent. He listened, but heard only the noise of the market: vendors calling, hagglers haggling, a street performer warbling off in the distance and a ceaseless, murmuring chatter.Faruq

Faruq wiped at the sweat leaking into his eyes from under his turban and slowly eased up until his gaze just barely cleared the lip of the urn. Thamina weaved her way through the throng, coming his way. He gripped the urn, wanting to take off and get lost in the crowd, but he knew that if she saw him he would just have to explain himself once he returned home. He hesitated, chewing on his lower lip and feeling his legs burn from his half-crouch even as she slowly closed in.

But then a gnarled, brown hand reached out and tugged on his sister’s headscarf. She whirled to face her assailant—an old woman. The noise of the market was too loud for Faruq to hear what the woman was saying, but it was clear by the way she gestured, frantic and desperate, that she was trying to sell something. Faruq grinned and bolted out of the little alcove. He chanced one quick look back at his sister, who was politely trying to disengage herself. For a full minute he pushed through the crowd, ignoring the curses and insults until he felt he was deep enough in the crush of bodies to have lost her.

He maneuvered his way to the edge of the horde and took a moment to reorient himself. Dead ahead were the gleaming white towers of the palace. The main roof and secondary towers were topped off with golden bulbs that tapered up to needle-like points. But the main towers, one at each corner, ended in great bulbs of glass, and the King kept his Djinn enclosed, each to a tower, like giant fireflies. Far above, even in the bright light of day, their flames dotted the sky in red, gold, silver and blue. When he awoke that morning, Faruq’s aim was to end the day tucked into a soft bed within a splendid manor, but as he squinted up at the towers the foolish boy dared hope that if all went smoothly, he would find himself living in a palace of his very own.

Since the palace was to the north Faruq used it to navigate, as everyone knew the wish scribe’s boys congregated in the gray district to the northeast. Old Ayman said they hung around a squat house with a blue door. Ah, Old Ayman. Faruq felt jealousy all mixed up with excitement whenever he thought about the elderly beggar—well, former beggar. Quick as an arrow, the vagrant had become a rich man, and now he lived in a big house right by the water with servants, many camels and goats, and he had just married his second wife.

It took close to another hour of besting the crowds, heat and noise of the market before he finally stumbled on the corridor he was searching for. It was practically deserted compared to the sea of bodies he’d been swimming. Shadows from tattered awnings stretched like lazy black cats across sand-colored buildings, one of which housed a blue door with peeling paint. A group of scrawny young men squatted on and around the cracked and broken steps in front passing the long nozzle of a water pipe. Faruq hung back, pressing up against a wall. He watched how the youths accosted the few people who hurried through the narrow street.

What’s your hurry? Test a wish and you could live forever—have all the time in the world!

A thin, weaselly man in a beige robe and turban slipped out of a shuttered building across the alley. He looked deliberately ahead while striding past the wish scribe’s boys, but one young man who leaned casually against the wall suddenly reached out snatched the weaselly man’s sleeve.

“My friend! Just one wish could change your whole life. No more shady dealings in shady alleys. Conduct your unsavory business under the shade of the palm trees in your courtyard, like all rich men.”

The man shook the youth off and scurried away, chased by the group’s raucous, mocking laughter. And then they spotted Faruq.

“You there! Little brother.” The young man on the wall gestured for Faruq to come closer. “Don’t be afraid, come, come!

Faruq pushed out his chest and marched over. “Who says I’m afraid?”

The others ignored him, but the one who’d called him over clapped a hand down on Faruq’s bony shoulder, and with his other hand he snatched the proffered nozzle, took a long, gurgling pull then sent smoke curling out of his nostrils to replace the thin line of hair above his upper lip.

“I am Abdul-Aziz,” he said. “So, what will it be for you today, little brother? Immeasurable wealth? The heart of the prettiest girl in town? Or maybe you’d like to add a few inches to your…” He took another drag of the pipe “…height,” he concluded while smoke once more spewed from his nose. He patted Faruq on the head. The boy ducked and huffed in annoyance.

“I want to become a wishtester,” he announced, quite unnecessarily. The rest of the boys ceased their chatter and looked at him with eyes that seemed to gleam white in the dimness of the alley. They grinned like jackals.

“Wonderful!” said Abdul-Aziz. “Right, let us go to see the wish scribes, eh?”

Faruq nodded and grinned, pleased that everything was going as planned. “Are you all wishtesters too?”

The young men glanced at each other, and burst into laughter.

“Not us,” said Abdul-Aziz. “All day we lounge and smoke tobacco, with not a care in the world. We have no need of wishes. But you, little brother, the wish scribes will have something spectacular for you, I’m sure of it. Come! The sooner you get your wish, the sooner you’ll be drowning in riches.” He put a hand to his heart. “I just hope you won’t forget your friend and loyal servant, Abdul-Aziz.” He grabbed Faruq by the shoulders and steered him toward the mouth of the alley.